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The Cacophony of the World

PARIS – In his masterpiece Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger describes, probably too idyllically, the international balance-of-power system that, following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, produced what came to be called the “Concert of Europe.” As Kissinger describes it, after the Napoleonic Wars, “There was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substantial harmony.” Of course, the concert ended in cacophony with the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914.

Today, after the brutality of the first half of the twentieth century, the temporary bipolarity of the Cold War, and America’s brief post-1989 hyperpower status, the world is once again searching for a new international order. Can something like the Concert of Europe be globalized?

Unfortunately, global cacophony seems more probable. One obvious reason is the absence of a recognized and accepted international referee. The United States, which best embodies ultimate power, is less willing – and less able – to exercise it. And the United Nations, which best embodies the principles of international order, is as divided and impotent as ever.

But, beyond the absence of a referee, another issue looms: the wave of globalization that followed the end of the Cold War has, paradoxically, accelerated fragmentation, affecting democratic and non-democratic countries alike. From the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s violent self-destruction, and Czechoslovakia’s peaceful divorce to today’s centrifugal pressures in Europe, the West, and the major emerging countries, fragmentation has been fundamental to international relations in recent decades.

The information revolution has created a more global, interdependent, and transparent world than ever. But this has led, in turn, to an anxious, balkanizing quest for identity. This effort to recover uniqueness is largely the cause of the international system’s growing fragmentation.

In the Concert of Europe, the number of actors was limited, and they were mostly states, whether national or imperial. Essential values were widely shared, and most actors favored protecting the existing order. In today’s world, by contrast, the nature of the actors involved is no longer so clear. Transnational forces, states, and non-state actors are all involved, and their goals are complex and sometimes contradictory, with no universal commitment to preserving the status quo.

The US may be intent on creating a transatlantic trade-and-investment pact with Europe, which would make a political statement to the world that the West writ large constitutes the universal normative reference point. But does such a West exist? In our era of fragmentation, there is a more powerful and dynamic American West, a globally more problematic European West (itself fragmented between a prosperous north and an economically lagging south), and even a British West and, in Japan, an Asian West.

The concept of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) may have been an astute branding tool. But, aside from its members’ high growth rates, has it had any real significance? Indeed, China is clearly in a category of its own, as a source of perceived (or real) risk to its regional environment. If the BRICs’ growth slows (as has begun to happen), the concept’s artificiality will become widely apparent. What unites emerging powers today is more their denial of international responsibilities than their joint diplomatic efforts.

Fragmentation also affects societies internally. Deep partisan divisions – whether over the role of government or social/cultural issues – are leading to near-paralysis in democratic societies like the US. In non-democratic societies, they can lead to revolution and violent power struggles. This has been the case in much of the Arab world since late 2010.

Even power itself is more fragmented than ever. Indeed, Moises Naim proclaims its demise in his latest book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used To Be. While Naim’s conclusion may be premature, he is right about one thing: “Power no longer buys as much as it did in the past.” It is “easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose.”

Some analysts maintain, reassuringly, that rapprochement between Asia and the West is possible, given symbiosis between Western democracy and authoritarian Confucianism. This is Kishore Mahbubani’s argument in his book The Great Convergence. But the harmony stemming from the encounter between different cultures and systems is nowhere near – and will not be as long as the rule of law has not taken hold in the emerging world and a culture of modesty has not made headway within the plural West.

The cacophony of the world has replaced the concert of Europe. And this may very well be the case for the foreseeable future.